HOLY GRAIL by D.B. LEVIN

I’m terrible at romantic relationships.  

And that’s not just me saying that. That’s the official assessment of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator questionnaire I meticulously filled out the other day on a whim (so you know it’s true).

For those not familiar with it, the MBTI is a psychometric measuring system constructed on the back of Carl Jung’s theories to indicate psychological preferences in how we perceive the world and make decisions. According to the test, I’m classified as an ENTJ – or Extraverted iNtuitive Thinking Judging – which means I’m single because I have “impossibly high standards” and I’d “probably marry myself if it were legal” (evidently the test has a snarky sense of humor). Additionally, I’ll only get into a relationship once I’ve decided it’s “practical to do so,” at which point I’ll “assess my potential suitors for mate value and propose to the most logical subject.”

If I’m being honest with myself, that sounds pretty spot on.

How did I get this way? What steered me towards this clinical, somewhat-sociopathic approach to love and marriage? That answer is simple. I’m like this because I once had my heart totally and irrevocably demolished… 

(and this is the part of the story where I pause a beat, then slip on my Sunglasses of Justice, just like David Caruso in CSI: Miami)

…back when I was five.

(Yyyyyeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh!!)

Her name was Manda. Not Amanda (əˈmændə). Just Manda (mændə). I remember this clearly because whenever she met someone for the first time, little Manda quickly stressed the absence of that “A”, as if the letter was as repulsive to her as Hester Prynne’s was to the Colonial people of Boston.

Manda was gorgeous, plain and simple. Standing at three and half feet tall, her statuesque beauty towered over me by a good two inches. Her rosy, apple cheeks framed a perfect mouth that was in no way marred by a lack of top incisors. And when she smiled, well, that just slayed me. All thoughts of Wonder Woman (my very first crush) in her push-up corset and star-spangled granny panties dissipated into the ether of compounding hormones.  

From the jump, Manda owned me.

We met in kindergarten, amongst a milieu of future meatheads who could only express their romantic interest in a female by smacking said female with a wiffle-ball bat. I was different. I was a gentleman of the old school. Noble. Gallant. A real Dudley Do-Right. To prove my merit as a suitor I often performed random, deeply chivalrous acts, like pulling out Manda’s chair as she was about to sit (unfortunately, whenever I would go to re-tuck it I would inadvertently shove too hard and smash her chest against the edge of the table, causing a small, pained gasp to escape). When it was time for our afternoon naps, I parked my rubber mat next to hers so I could protect her while she slept. And when the all-school fair came around, I (without hesitation) handed over my incredibly cool Spider-Man balloon to Manda after her Pink Panther balloon slipped away into a tree.

Eventually, my diligence paid off and Manda and I became each other’s ride or die. I knew this was true because when our Moms arranged play-dates for us, they referred to Manda as “my little girlfriend.”  

Yes, we were full-on Jay-Z and Beyonce.

The best thing about Manda was her inherent adventurousness. Because she lived in a world without fear, she pushed me from my comfort zone and encouraged me to try things I never would have attempted of my own volition. Like the time she convinced me it was a brilliant idea to wear a bowl of buttered pasta as a hat at Pizza Hut. This also led us to sharing our first vaguely sexual experience together. Hiding beneath my Star Wars-decorated bed, I put the diaphragm of a toy stethoscope on her special spot (I suppose I thought it was like a seashell and I’d be able to hear the ocean?), she flicked mine (twice), and we both squealed in disgust for an hour.

It was a perfect, idyllic time.  

Until that fateful day The Cowboy Kid blew into town and ruined Every. Motherfucking. Thing.  

I call him The Cowboy Kid for two reasons: (1) because who gives a shit what his real name was, and (2) because the snot-nosed punk’s signature apparel was a pair of genuine, white-leather cowboy boots. The dude loved them. Which he made unmistakably clear by proceeding to wear them every damn day, with every damn outfit – pants, jeans, shorts, you name it. 

To my overwhelming horror, I discovered soon enough that Manda loved them as well.

The day it happened, fate found Manda and me playing on the jungle gym during recess. I was hanging upside down by my knees with my arms swinging limply over my head. Normally this stunt would entertain Manda to no end, consistently securing her admiration for my derring-do, but this day it just wasn’t cutting it. Manda’s attention was focused elsewhere – and that elsewhere was on The Cowboy Kid, who had climbed up to join us on top of the bars.

A sudden sick feeling slipped into my stomach and it wasn’t because I had been hanging upside down for too long. No, this came from the split-second realization of imminent peril, like when an object speeds at your head, but you don’t realize it until just before you catch its shadow approaching the corner of your eye. As I swung upright and shimmied across to where this interloper was preparing to sniff my girlfriend’s butt (metaphorically), all proprietary instincts started blaring “Danger! Danger!”  

I had just slid into a position to cut him off at the knees when I heard the words that have haunted my self-esteem to this day: “Hey, [The Cowboy Kid], I really like your boots.  They’re soooo cool.”

I stared at Manda, stunned. Couldn’t believe it. She was talking to him? It was so surreal, all I could do was shake my head and tap my temple with the heel of my palm.

But it was true. And not only was she talking to him, she was smiling at him. And not only was she smiling at him, she was beaming at him with that perfect gapped-tooth grin which was supposed to be reserved exclusively for me.  

Now, I’d like to be able to tell you this asshole did exactly what I did the first time Manda spoke to me, which was trip face-first into a puddle of mud. Unfortunately, The Cowboy Kid was a pro and the enigmatic power of Manda’s grin rolled off his back like mercury.

“Thanks,” he mumbled, while running his fingers through his hair with a nonchalance that would have given James Dean pause. Manda tucked her chin and coyly bit her bottom lip. My neck instantly got hot and my eyes started to water. I wobbled in place, knuckles turning white as I grasped the monkey bars for balance.

“See ya around,” she said, and slipped from the bars, heading off to another section of the playground, leaving The Cowboy Kid and me to watch her go.
The second she was out of earshot, shit got real. I turned on him, severe. 

“Give me your boots,” I demanded, with less forcefulness than intended, but at least using the right words in the right order.

As if noticing me for the first time, he swiveled his head in my direction. “What?”

“Give… me… your boots.” I wiggled my Oscar the Grouch sneakers at him. “You can have my shoes.”

He snickered, “Yeah, right. What are you? A retard?”

I gaped at him, completely dumbfounded. I had no idea how to counter his remark (mostly because at five years old I had no idea what a retard was). Regardless, I should have known he wasn’t going to hand over the boots just because I wanted him to. They were the source of his mystery, his allure. They were his power. And he knew it.  

With nothing left to say, The Cowboy Kid tossed a condescending smirk my way and hopped to the gravel. Strolling off, he looked exactly like a young lion who had just slaughtered its first gazelle on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins. As I watched him go, I bit down on the inside of my cheek until it bled.

Things went south pretty quickly after that. When I tried my usual chair trick, Manda refused to let me tuck her back in, snapping, “I got it!” with a brutality I had never experienced before. And when I went to arrange our sleeping mats together, she was already on the other side of the room, positioning herself next to The Cowboy Kid.

In the blink of an eye, I had been Kristen Stewart-ed.

My relationship was over.

Love was dead.  

Now, I’d be lying if I said my experience with Manda caused me to take a permanent oath of celibacy and never seek love again. On the contrary, in the intervening years I’ve stuck my little womb raider into places it didn’t belong. I’ve even considered a couple of those places “the real thing,” once or twice. Nevertheless, each time I brought a parachute with me just in case the plane started to go down (as I fully expected it to) and used it at the first hint of turbulence. Maybe as I get older, I’ll finally find the emotional equivalent of Xanax and relax into a relationship I can die in. Until then, I suppose I’ll just have to be satisfied with the pair of genuine, white-leather cowboy boots I recently ordered from BootBarn.com. 

Which, incidentally, are fly as fuck.

(Yyyyyeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh!!)

D.B. LEVIN is a writer and director in Los Angeles. Brainiac, social scientist and poet are words that have never been associated with his name.